Rosa, very dainty in her borrowed nurse’s uniform, was round-eyed, timid; she evoked much admiration, but when she was addressed as Senora O’Reilly she blushed to the roots of her hair and shrank close to her husband’s side. To feel herself secure, to see on all sides friendly faces, to know that these fine men and women—there were numerous good Cuban matrons present—were her own people and meant her well, was almost unbelievable. She had so long been hidden, she had so long feared every stranger’s glance, it was not strange that she felt ill at ease, and that the banquet was a grave ordeal for her.
Branch proved to be a happy choice as Esteban’s proxy, for he relieved Norine’s anxiety and smothered her apprehensions. When called upon to speak he made a hit by honestly expressing his relief at escaping the further hazards of this war. Prompted by some freakish perversity, and perhaps unduly stimulated by the wine he had drunk, he made open confession of his amazing cowardice.
O’Reilly interpreted for him and well-nigh every sentence evoked laughter. El Demonio’s heroic reputation had preceded him, therefore his unsmiling effort to ridicule himself struck the audience as a new and excruciatingly funny phase of his eccentricity. Encountering this blank wall of disbelief, Branch waxed more earnest, more convincing; in melancholy detail he described his arrant timidity, his cringing fear of pain, his abhorrence of blood and steel. His elongated face was genuinely solemn, his voice trembled, his brow grew damp with unpleasant, memories; he seemed bent upon clearing his conscience once for all. But he succeeded only in convulsing his hearers. Women giggled, men wiped tears from their eyes and declared he was a consummate actor and the rarest, the most fantastic humorist they had ever listened to. They swore that Cuba had lost, in him, a peerless champion. When he had finished they cheered him loudly and the orchestra broke into a rousing military march.
Leslie turned to voice his irritation and surprise to Norine, but she had slipped away, so he glared at O’Reilly, wondering how the latter had so artfully managed to mistranslate his remarks.
When Rosa and O’Reilly returned to Esteban’s cabin they found Norine ahead of them. She was kneeling beside the sick man’s hammock, and through the doorway came the low, intimate murmur of their voices. Rosa drew her husband away, whispering, happily:
“He will get well. God and that wonderful girl won’t let him die.”
THE OWL AND THE PUSSY-CAT
The journey to the coast was made by easy stages and Esteban stood it fairly well. The excitement wore upon him, to be sure, and the jolting of his litter was trying, but Norine was always at his side where he could see her, and Rosa joined in the tender care of him. Guides, horses, and a tent for the sick man had been supplied, and over these O’Reilly exercised a jealous watchfulness, ably seconded by Branch. For once, at least, the latter lent himself to useful ends and shirked no duties. His wounded arm recovered miraculously and he exercised it freely; he skirmished industriously for food and he enlivened the journey by a rare display of good spirits.